How a Swimmer Prepares for Military Training

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A Marine swims in the combat training pool at Parris Island.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Cobb swims at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., Sept. 17, 2020. (Cpl. Shane Manson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Swimming is not only an outstanding way to get in excellent cardio conditioning, but knowing how to swim also is a survival skill.

It is a skill that renders a person ineffective on 75% of the Earth if that ability is not fully developed. When you cannot save yourself, you cannot help others, so joining the military or a first-responder program as a strong swimmer is a winning combination. However, swimming athletes tend to have some weaknesses that should be decreased and better developed into strengths before Day 1 of any military training.

Strengths of the Swimming Athlete

Cardiovascular conditioning. Swimmers typically have an incredible cardiovascular ability, and this will transfer over into other forms of cardio activity like running and rucking (see weakness below). Building muscle endurance in the upper body is also rather easy for the swimming athlete, so PT tests tend to improve easily if on a progressive PT program (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups or other). Endurance and muscle stamina are strong in the swimmer.

Mental toughness. Waking up first thing in the morning several days a week when it is cold and dark is tough to do. Jumping into a pool that is not warm and swimming for the next 90 minutes before school is even harder.

This daily habit of getting comfortable being uncomfortable goes a long way to build resilience and mental toughness for future military programs and life generally. Going to that "happy place" when times get tough is a good skill that is developed every day, just staring at a black line for hours each day while working hard at practice.

Swim teams. Though swimming is largely an individual sport, there is a big sense of suffering together as a team doing early-morning practices, weight-training workouts and after-school practices during the season. Having people rely on your abilities and effort is a great way to build the foundation of being a good team player, because in the military, you will be part of a team your entire career.

Weaknesses of the Swimmer

There are weaknesses that the swimming athlete must deal with before attending any type of military basic training and especially a military special-ops program. Here is a list of the elements of fitness elements that the swimming athlete needs to focus on once the swim season is over:

Strength. Overall strength not only will help the swimming athlete learn what gravity is, but also enable them to build stronger bones and muscles to handle the impact forces of running and/or rucking. Lifting weights mixed with calisthenics is a fine method to start to build strength. Reduce your high mileage of swimming each week and focus on lifting more and eat like you always have. You will find you can pick up muscle mass that will help you make your lower extremities stronger.

Hyper-mobile. Swimmers also tend to be very flexible, and many have joints that are considered "hyper-mobile." It is good to have mobility and flexibility, but too much can lead to quick injuries when under vertical force stresses, such as load-bearing events and even upper-body weight lifting. The good news is that the calisthenics, dumbbell work, TRX suspension system and weight training will help with creating more joint stability for the hyper-mobile.

All of this may take some time. A 12-week cycle of lifting is a smart start. See ideas in Tactical Strength.

Running and impact activities. Running, rucking and other load-bearing exercises can cause pain and injury quickly in the swimming athlete. After a strength training program, the next step is to start applying more impact cardio events progressively.

The first event a candidate/recruit will have to take is a timed run of 1.5, two or three miles, depending upon the branch of service. Though these are not ultra-long-distance runs, preparing for them can yield many running injuries as the week progresses with running each day. See ideas -- Classic Timed Run Prep Plan.

One of the recommended methods to help a swimming endurance athlete make this transition is to have a calisthenics base training program mixed, but you have to introduce running slowly. Too much, too soon can lead to overuse injuries (feet, shins, knees, tendons) and cause disruption in the ability to train for what the military does a lot of (running and even rucking -- Army/Marine Corps).

But they must reduce the running significantly, compared to previous running training cycles. Instead of running every day, perhaps start off running every other day -- with swimming or other non-impact cardio options in between -- to give you a break from the initial impact pains of running. See sample progressive running plans that can help build the foundation so you go into running smartly and without pain/injury.

Previous athletes discussed:

Speed and agility: Speed, agility, cone drills and shuttle runs are other elements of running at which the swimmer tends to be weak. Practice your speed and agility, especially if you know there are shuttle runs, beep tests and other agility tests in your future.

If a swimming athlete can do some cross training during the offseason and mix in some running through the years, the transition to starting a strength training/running program will be easier to follow. Adding running with leg calisthenics will help build stronger bones and muscles and get the tendons and other soft tissue more used to gravity and the forces of impact that you will see in future military training.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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